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What David Cameron's comeback interview tells us about the Tories

In conversation with ITV's Tom Bradby, the former prime minister revealed just how spectacularly his political project has failed.

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He disagrees with the biggest calls of Boris Johnson’s premiership...

So far, so unsurprising: Bradby kicked off his hour of questioning with the journalistic equivalent of underarm bowling. Did Cameron agree with his successor-but-one's decision to prorogue Parliament? 

As reluctant as he was to appear keen to criticise Johnson as prime minister - though he did attack his role in the referendum campaign - his answer was as predictable as it was robust. 

Though he did not question the legality of Johnson's five-week suspension, Cameron described it as a "rather sharp practice of trying to restrict the debate". He went on to say that prime ministers should "work through parliament, and you can't deny the arithmetic of parliament and the majorities there are in parliament".

Unbidden by Bradby, he then criticised Johnson's "disastrous" decision to withdraw the whip from the 21 Tories who voted against a no-deal Brexit, and said the prime minister ought to reinstate them. "If they're not, I really worry about what could happen."

That that sort of blanket pardon is very unlikely to happen reflects the big differences in Cameron and Johnson’s electoral priorities and political projects. The former sought a broad base. The latter is only interested - for now, at least - in gobbling up the leave vote.

...and regrets one of his own...

One thing Cameron is never going to do, on the basis of this interview and what we’ve seen of his memoirs, is say that he was wrong to call the EU referendum.

But he did go as far as to admit that he handled it maladroitly. “I have huge regrets,” he said. “I regret that we lost the campaign. I regret I let expectations about the negotiation run far too high. I regret some of the individual decisions we made in the campaign. I think perhaps there’s a case to say the timing could have been different.”

It was, in effect, an admission that he ought to have paid more attention to the instincts of George Osborne and Michael Gove - neither of whom thought the plebiscite was worth holding.

...but he’s still prepared to defend most of the others

Something shared by each of Cameron’s media appearances this week - and, indeed, the serialised extracts of his memoir - is the absence of the sort of sweeping mea culpa his detractors feel that, by rights, he really ought to be offering. 

Though he admitted that he "hugely regrets" its outcome, and went as far as to admit he had failed and implicitly apologise for it, he defended his decision to call the EU referendum as necessary and right - despite dogged questioning from Bradby.

Similarly, he rejected any suggestion that he had been misguided in imposing austerity during his tenure - despite the very visible human and political consequences. Instead, he reeled off a defence in which he stressed he had cut the deficit, reduced inequality, and raised taxes on high earners.

Right or not - and plenty of people in his own party, to say nothing of parliament and the country at large, will say not - it was a striking moment, though not necessarily because of what he said. 

What was really striking was the fact of his making the argument. It threw two things into harsh relief, and both reflect the ultimate failure of Cameron’s political project. 

The first is that the Conservatives have abandoned both the language of preaching fiscal rectitude, and any pretension of practicing it. 

The second is that, three years on from his resignation, Cameron’s old party is yet to find a leader who is willing or, more pertinently, able to make an internally coherent argument about the economy. That is something they might yet pay for.


Despite what Boris Johnson says, there is no way to “get Brexit done”

The most revealing exchange of the interview wasn’t really about Cameron at all, but rather the inconvenient truth of Britain’s relationship with Europe and its single market - and how it will inevitably dominate our political discourse regardless of the outcome of the Brexit process. 

Bradby kicked off the second half of the programme with what he appeared to assume was a stinging gotcha. "One of the things that did surprise me in 800 pages of your book is you come across as a raging Eurosceptic," he told Cameron. "You have almost nothing good to say about the European Union in 800 pages...and then you end up arguing that we should stay. I mean, is it surprising?"

In reply, Cameron insisted it was an unfair criticism. “I’ve always believed Britain is better off in the EU because we have to be sitting round that table that sets the rules for our biggest market,” he said, adding: “My sense has always been in spite of however many frustrations you have with the EU, it’s in our national interest to be at that table, setting those rules.”

That pragmatic case for EU membership - which, as is self-evident from the 2016 result, did not resonate with the public - reflects a truth that the Brexiteers in Cameron’s party seldom acknowledge. The fact of Britain’s economic reality is that the strategic decisions governments of any stripe will have to make will, to one degree or another, be responses to those made by the EU27 - particularly, as Cameron says, when it comes to regulation. 

This much was also clear from Cameron’s suggestion that Theresa May ought to have pursued a Norwegian or Swiss-style settlement after the 2016 vote to leave.

Of course, Brexit Britain will be free - at least notionally - to choose to ignore those rules and strike out on its own. But the trade-off Cameron describes speaks to the unpalatable (and politically unsaleable) reality that the UK cannot really afford to do so, at least in the short to medium term. And whatever the outcome, no government will ever be able to ignore the EU, the decisions it makes and the diktats it sets - as much as some in Cameron’s party assume that, in good time, they will.

He has no plans to return to a Conservative Party that bears no resemblance to his

Intermittently, there are reports that Cameron is considering - or even actively planning - a return to Westminster. They last came in May, when it was suggested he would stand to replace Michael Fallon - whose retirement was then unannounced. And last November he was reported to have told friends that he was keen to return to the Treasury bench as foreign secretary.

Signing off, Cameron was at pains to scotch suggestions those reports carried any basis in truth. 

Asked by Bradby if he would ever re-enter frontline politics, he said: “No; I—look…if a prime minister asked me to do something to help with an issue like I am with National Citizen Service or I am with dementia, I’ll always, you know, want to help. I love this country. I care passionately about what happens. But I think the idea of going back to frontline politics is not going to happen, nor should it.”

Coming as they do in a week where Sam Gymiah, his former parliamentary private secretary, quit the Tories for the Liberal Democrats, those remarks betray a truth that Cameron was altogether too diplomatic to acknowledge explicitly: the Conservative party that he led bears very little resemblance to the Conservative party led by Boris Johnson.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

The case for universal infant free school meals

Research Fellow and economist at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, discusses the effects of free school meals and the origins of the policy.

In 2014, the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition government announced a policy of Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM), providing a free lunch to all children in the first three years of primary school from September 2015 onwards. This policy has survived intact, despite competing manifesto pledges ahead of the 2017 election, with the Conservatives pledging to scrap universal free lunches in favour of a free breakfast offer, and Labour proposing to extend universal Free School Meal entitlement to all primary school children.

The Department for Education’s stated aims for the policy were to improve children’s educational attainment; to help families with the cost of living; and to ensure children have access to a healthy meal a day and develop long-term healthy eating habits. It costs £437 per child per year, and over £15m was spent in the first year on improving school kitchens to meet the increased demand. With another election looming and the fate of this costly policy potentially at stake, is important to know whether it has delivered on its aims.

In Nuffield-Foundation funded research at ISER at the University of Essex, my colleague Birgitta Rabe and I evaluated the effect of UIFSM on the bodyweight outcomes of English children in their first year of school (aged 4-5). Specifically we looked the probability that children are of healthy weight, overweight or obese, and their body mass index (BMI). We used school-level data from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) from the 2007/08 to 2017/18 academic years. The data come from trained nurses who visit each primary school in England, once per year, to measure children’s heights and weights.

We found that even before UIFSM was introduced, the bodyweight outcomes of children measured later in the school year tended to be healthier than those measured earlier. For example, the prevalence of obesity among those measured in June and July was around 1 percentage point lower than those measured in September and October, and the proportion at a ‘healthy weight’ accounting for their age and sex around 3 percentage points higher. A similar improvement could still be seen after controlling for other characteristics of the pupils and the schools. In other words, a combination of seasonal effects and the school environment appears to be beneficial for children’s bodyweight outcomes even without UIFSM.

Our research also showed that children exposed to UIFSM but measured in the first half-term of the school year had very similar bodyweight outcomes to those who never received UIFSM, other things being equal. This was expected, as they will have eaten few Free School Meals by that time, and any daily difference in calorie intake would not have had time to accumulate and make a noticeable difference to BMI. However, those measured later in the school year did show significantly improved bodyweight outcomes compared with those measured at the same time of the school year but who never received UIFSM. For example, the “treatment effect” of a whole academic year of exposure to UIFSM (i.e. for a child measured in June or July) was a 1 percentage point increase in their probability of being a healthy weight, and 0.5 percentage point decrease in probability of being obese.

These effects are large compared with other school-based interventions to improve bodyweight outcomes, delivered either in the classroom (education-based) or playground (physical activity-based), but so are the comparative costs of UIFSM. The results suggest that UIFSM is unlikely to be cost-effective solely for improving this measure of child health, but we are continuing to research the effects on school performance, attendance and absences.

 

**Reference:** 

Holford A, Rabe B (2019) ‘The impact of Universal Infant Free School Meals on child body weight outcomes’, Conference Paper, Special Session on Health Behaviours, Royal Economic Society, Warwick, April 2019.

This project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org

This week, the Supreme Court must come of age

Ten years after its launch, the UK’s final court of appeal must decide the most important constitutional case for a generation.

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In June 1996, the government and the judiciary were locked in a state of what Lord Irvine, then Labour’s shadow lord chancellor, described as “unprecedented antagonism”. Michael Howard’s plans for tougher sentencing would place “legislative straitjackets” on the judiciary, said Irvine, and as the government claimed more powers over judicial decisions, judges could be provoked to “to reverse government policies” in “a judicial invasion of the legislature's turf”. The separation of powers, Irvine said, was a “delicate balance” that relied on each branch knowing its constitutional limits. The speech is remembered today for its message to judges: stay out of politics.

Today, as 11 Justices of the UK Supreme Court prepare to decide the most important constitutional case in a generation, a similar turf war has erupted. The problem is, nobody knows exactly whose tanks are on which side of whose lawn. This dispute over constitutional geography is at the crux of the fierce battle over Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament, and the Supreme Court will have to decide where the borders of our unwritten constitution lie.

The Scottish Court of Session and the Divisional Court of England and Wales have already provided two different maps of the constitutional territory, by offering two different judgments on whether the government’s advice to the Queen to prorogue parliament for five weeks was lawful. It is now up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the Prime Minister has, in using prerogative powers to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, breached our unwritten constitution.

As the justices will be acutely aware, in taking on their proper constitutional role they will have to leave behind the cosy anonymity they have enjoyed for decades. This will have consequences which will strain our separation of powers system, perhaps to breaking point. Nonetheless, is now time for the Supreme Court to come of age.

The key decision for the Supreme Court is whether the decision to prorogue parliament is “justiciable” – whether it is a matter that the courts can examine at all. The High Court’s judgment was that it isn’t; in our system of separated powers, ruled the three senior judges, the judiciary must stay out of “political” or “high policy” disputes. The Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue parliament, and particularly the decision to prorogue for a lengthy period, was “inherently political in nature”, it found, adding that “there are no legal standards against which to judge their legitimacy”. The court refused to rule on the reasons for the prorogation, or whether the Prime Minister had therefore been truthful in his justification of it, but it held that this was not a matter that could be examined by the courts.

In Scotland, however, the Inner Court of Session took a different view. Its starting point was that the decision to prorogue was not one of politics or high policy, but the avoidance of democratic scrutiny. It was designed, it found, to “stymie Parliamentary scrutiny of Government action”. Such scrutiny is "a central pillar of the good governance principle which is enshrined in the constitution”. This was not, the court was careful to note, a matter of Scottish law. It was the application of common law, informed by the principles of “democracy and the rule of law”. Parliamentary debate is central to our constitution; since the Prime Minister had prorogued parliament in order to restrict the time it had to debate Brexit, this was held to be an unlawful use of prerogative powers.

Now the matter arrives at the UK Supreme Court. The context has fundamentally changed since Irvine’s warning in 1996. In 1998, parliament gave the judiciary the task of adjudicating upon human rights issues through the Human Rights Act. Although this brought the UK in line with most developed democracies, and continued a trend which had begun with the evolution of “judicial review” in the 1970s, it predictably led to an increasing number of clashes between judges, politicians and the media. But the courts have taken their new responsibilities seriously, and developed a rich body of UK-focused human rights law. In 2009, recognising that the highest appeal court could not comfortably operate in a separation of powers system whilst adjudicating in a cramped House of Lords committee room and pronouncing judgments in the Lords’ debating chamber, the UK Supreme Court was established. It moved into new premises across Parliament Square and opened itself up to the public as no UK court had previously. Its hearings are now filmed and broadcast live online, an innovation even the US Supreme Court cannot match.

The law rarely works quickly, but nobody watching the Supreme Court since its launch a decade ago can have missed its steady evolution into a constitutional court. Every year or so a ruling has emerged, often on an esoteric subject, in which the justices have gradually cemented the court’s place in the UK’s constitutional structure, at the same time developing a theory of the UK’s constitution, and the court’s powers arising from it, which it then applied in future cases.

For example, in 2014 the court ruled that the government could not override a court’s ruling that Prince Charles’ ‘black spider’ letters were to be released under freedom of information laws. The Supreme Court president said that laws allowing government ministers to overrule court decisions simply because they didn’t agree “would cut across … constitutional principles which are … fundamental components of the rule of law”.

It was through a Supreme Court judgment over HS2 in 2014 that Lord Sumption developed the idea of the UK’s “constitutional instruments” and principles that are “fundamental to the rule of law”, despite the lack of a written constitution. It was the same “principle of legality” which led to the first Gina Miller judgment in 2017, in which the Supreme Court decided that the executive branch could not take the UK out of the EU without parliamentary approval.

Then, a few months later, the court decided in the Unison case that another constitutional principle inherent to the rule of law, access to justice, was breached by the charging of exorbitant fees to bring employment tribunal claims.

The language in these cases is often of lofty principle and ancient law. But in essence, when the court invokes the “rule of law”, the “principle of legality” and “the unwritten constitution”, it is staking a territorial claim. It is saying that the area being discussed is on constitutional land, and is therefore guarded by the courts.

It is against this background that the prorogation case arrives at the Supreme Court. If the court decides that it has no jurisdiction – that the matter is inherently political and therefore “non justiciable” – it would go against the grain of the court’s evolving image of its own role in the constitutional landscape. It would also be, in my view, a dereliction of responsibility.

It has been reported that the Prime Minister may prorogue parliament again in the last two weeks of October, to guarantee Brexit by any means. Whether or not this is true, it highlights the danger that if prorogation for the purpose of avoiding parliamentary scrutiny is permitted by the courts, it will be the thin end of the wedge. The executive would hold a dangerous new power to insulate itself from parliamentary scrutiny.

For the Supreme Court to rule that the Prime Minister has acted in breach of the UK’s constitution would be a defence of the constitutional principles it has been developing for years. But there will be consequences for the court which we, as a liberal democracy, must not shy away from. It is inherently unstable for a constitutional court to operate without a written constitution.

The dangers are clear to see from this case. The judiciary will be accused of politicisation, whichever way it rules. If the court rules against the Prime Minister it will be said, with some justification, that the unwritten constitution gives the judiciary too much discretion - that by merely pronouncing a matter to be ‘constitutional’ it becomes so, and vice-versa. The risk is that deciding this boundary (as opposed to whether facts of individual cases have breached it) becomes a hostage to the personal politics of individual judges.

This can be seen by the approach of Lord Sumption, who has been publicly vocal in his criticism of the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue, but who recently used his Reith Lectures to warn that the courts are becoming politicised because parliament has asked them to rule on human rights issues. Critics of Sumption’s position, including myself, argued that the line he draws privileges those with power - who are naturally concerned with lofty principles such as the rule of law and free speech - over those without, for example groups who have traditionally fallen outside of the courts’ protections, and who greatly benefited from human rights laws, such as the LGBT community. Ideally, the broad ambit of constitutional protections should be set by democratic consensus, not the views of individual politicians or judges.

As each new constitutional crisis now leads swiftly to litigation, and the mobilisation of metaphorical tanks on opposing lawns, it is surely in everyone’s interests to pause and take stock of the direction our constitutional path is leading us. Ultimately, in a separation of powers system, strong fences make for good neighbours, and a clear constitution is a strong barrier against abuses of power. Irvine was right about this being a “delicate balance”, although in the last two decades the balance has thankfully shifted towards greater scrutiny of the executive. I hope that the Supreme Court does what is right. But if it does, the case for a written constitution will become ever stronger.

Adam Wagner is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and the founder and chair of RightsInfo. Follow him at @adamwagner1

The next election will be fought on Facebook. Dominic Cummings knows that

It may be a forlorn hope, but for a fair election, legislation on social media advertising in elections should be introduced beforehand.

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Ever since Boris Johnson’s election as leader, the Conservative Party has been road-testing Facebook advertising, gathering contact details and trying out a small number of possible election themes: more police, investment in the NHS and delivering Brexit. 

Over the weekend, it seemed that even Facebook tired of the party’s mendacity; removing Tory advertisements that featured a BBC headline doctored to exaggerate the party’s school spending commitment.

There’s a simple reason for this growing digital focus. As Wrexham’s Labour MP Ian Lucas, a member of the Commons Culture Select Committee that has investigated the social media site's role in politics, says: "Facebook is the most important platform in election campaigns in the UK." 

Facebook facilitates data-driven electioneering: building the audience, segmenting it, testing and creating message creations, targeting and delivering messages, and fundraising. The 2016 Trump campaign raised $250-280m, of which it spent an estimated $70-90m on Facebook advertising. Facebook staff were embedded in both the Trump and Clinton campaigns to assist campaign operatives in their targeting.

As an admirer of David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign director who used Facebook as a key campaign tool in 2008 and 2012, Dominic Cummings has made no secret of the importance of Facebook to the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. Writing on his blog, Cummings has explained in detail how Vote Leave spent a substantial amount of money on Facebook advertising in the final few days of the referendum campaign, hammering home "the same messages: £350m / NHS / Turkey".

Facebook offers Boris Johnson another advantage: the ability to speak directly, unmediated by probing journalists’ questions, to his audience – and that message can be targeted, directly, by demographics. Through their actions Johnson and Cummings have essentially decreed that the day of the formal media interview is dead, as Dorothy Byrne, the head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, recently noted in her stunning MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival.

The all-party Commons Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport earlier this year called for urgent action to reform electoral law to close the gaps on social media advertising, saying that it was not fit for purpose. 

Candidates and parties currently have to account for social media spending, but the content is largely unregulated except by social media platforms’ own rules. Even imprints are not required on such advertising, meaning there is no transparency for voters. Adverts in Facebook’s news feed have the same appearance as other Facebook posts.

The Select Committee explicitly said the government "should look at the ways in which the UK law should define digital campaigning, including having agreed definitions of what constitutes online political advertising, such as agreed types of words that continually arise in adverts that are not sponsored by a specific political party". It also drew attention to "the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups".

Cummings resisted giving evidence to the Select Committee and was in March found to be in contempt of parliament. In July and September, Ian Lucas wrote to Boris Johnson about Cummings’s role in the Vote Leave campaign on these issues, including seeking funds for associated campaigns such as BeLeave to develop social media advertising with the Canadian company AggregateIQ, which used to boast a message of endorsement from Cummings on its website. Lucas asked Johnson to instruct Cummings to give evidence to the committee.

Johnson this week replied saying that there was a difference between actions taken as a private citizen and those while working as a special adviser, and drew attention to the government’s response to the Select Committee’s report, which promises some future reform in these areas.

There have been some developments in the role of social media in elections since 2016. Under pressure, Facebook is now compelling political advertisers to have their advertisements pre-authorised, so that identity and location can be confirmed, making advertising more transparent by publishing who has paid for it, and ensuring that ads being run from Facebook pages are visible to all through an archive. Legislation on these issues has already been introduced in Canada and Australia. Separately, the UK’s information commissioner has taken action on the use of personal data in campaigning by political parties. Campaigns like Who Targets Me have shone a light on existing political advertising on Facebook under current laws.

Cummings has himself said that UK electoral law is not fit for the digital age. Yet if an election is called in the immediate future we will go to the polls with Facebook and other social media advertising unregulated. It may be a forlorn hope, but for a fair election, legislation on social media advertising in elections should be introduced beforehand. After all, even Mark Zuckerberg thinks that Facebook’s role in political advertising should be regulated.

Leighton Andrews is a former Welsh government minister and the author of Facebook, the Media and Democracy, published next week by Routledge and professor of practice in public service leadership and innovation at Cardiff Business School.

Chuka Umunna says the Lib Dems could win up to 200 seats. Is he right?

Are the Lib Dems repeating the mistakes of Cleggmania? Some party veterans think so.

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How many seats can the Liberal Democrats expect to win at the next general election? That’s the question hanging over the party’s conference in Bournemouth, and the inevitable one posed by the defections of Labour and Tory MPs whose seats their new party appears – on paper at least – to have little chance of winning.

Until recently, the official answer was 40 – the number of core target seats identified by Lib Dem HQ. Addressing reporters after his first conference speech as a Lib Dem MP this morning, Chuka Umunna said he would be disappointed if the party came out of the next election with anything less. 

Yet the leadership’s sights are set even higher. At a meeting in Westminster last week, candidates for the first 40 seats on the core target list were told that it had doubled in length to 80. Some of the 40 – a number of whom will be attempting to win from third place – were left taken aback. “I don’t know if they know something we don’t,” says one, “but they really do believe they can do it”.

Why the optimism? According to Umunna, the answer lies in the party’s internal polling, which played a big part in his decision to seek election in Cities of London and Westminster rather than Streatham. “If there’s a 1.5 to 2 per cent swing, we can get up 100 seats,” he said. “And if there is a five per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats through the course of the campaign, 200 seats are in contention.” The more the public saw and liked of Swinson, Umunna said, the likelier the prospect of clearing those higher bars would become.

That kind of upbeat talk speaks to the defining mood of this year’s conference: the official line is that Brexit has upended the traditional electoral calculus, a realigning election is overdue, and that the Lib Dems stand to benefit. Some of them really do mean it when they talk about forming a majority government. But for older hands, it will set alarm bells ringing. Even before people started talking about numbers as big as 200 with straight faces, veterans of past campaigns were already distinctly uneasy at the scale of the party’s ambition.

Some fear the party is at risk of forgetting the precarious majorities it will have to defend in the 12 seats it won in 2017. “What we don’t want,” says one senior Lib Dem MP, “is to end up in the situation we were in 2010, where we looked at the polling, got way ahead of ourselves, and forgot we had seats to defend as well as attack”. Others question whether some of the new targets are worth their time and resources at all. “I looked at that list and thought: Warrington North? Really? We haven’t even kept our deposit there since 2010,” says a target seat candidate.

As opponents of the decision to back the revocation of Article 50 without a referendum discovered yesterday, however, the leadership has already resolved to take this strategic gamble.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.